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Drug Crisis Response Should Maximize Role of Faith Community

November 13, 2019

Many communities fighting established or emerging drug crises are failing to take advantage of a critical local resource: faith leaders.

A pair of speakers from Ohio and Tennessee closed the Cocaine, Meth & Stimulant Summit this week by discussing how faith organizations in their states are being equipped to serve as productive partners in combating addiction.

Monty Burks, PhD, director of faith-based initiatives at the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, reminded the audience that local congregations often are the oldest and most established organizations in their communities. Faith groups might not have all the answers about how to address addiction and overdose, but “they might be able to guide the person to where the answers exist,” Burks said.

Pastor Greg Delaney, outreach coordinator for the Woodhaven Ohio treatment and recovery organization, cited how congregations are being encouraged to translate their faith into a broader social impact. “What the faith community says or not will have an impact on what community members learn,” said Delaney, who serves as the faith-based initiatives representative on the Ohio governor's recovery advisory council.

Documenting the impact

As faith-based organizations forge closer relationships with the behavioral health and law enforcement communities, Delaney said, they are being encouraged to become more data-driven in validating the effects of their work. The idea is for the faith community to be able to speak the same language as the providers and the funders, he said.

In Tennessee, Burks said, a system has been established to designate faith groups as “certified recovery congregations.” He outlined a process under which faith-based community coordinators certify the congregations, which become important community resources for education and referral to services.

Burks said that more than 500 congregations in Tennessee have been certified, and efforts have resulted in around 8,000 referrals to services.

This is creating change from a time in which people with a substance use problem might have considered their church to be the last place from which to seek help. Delaney said it still takes hard work to convince some faith-based groups that prevention requires more than “just say no” and that addiction does not constitute a moral failing.

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